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London Cinema becomes a Sneak Preview Opportunity

My time in London is now in the rearview mirror and I hope to be back there again soon. Or at least sooner than 7 years from now!

As befitting a world class cultural center, my visit allowed for taking in of two films not yet released in the USA.

The first, Ex Machina, was an excellent and positive example of mismarketing. I recall the film’s trailer promising an explosive and somewhat action packed adventure and suggesting that the movie would be a familiar “rise of the machines” type action drama.

But the real film turned out to be a surprisingly intimate and provocative drama, with a few traces of action, that asks timely questions about the nature of intelligence and humanity. While the debate between man and machine is also covered along the lines of Blade Runner or some other of its cinematic cousins, this film also adds a gendered element where the machine is considered a female, while (her) observers and makers are male. In its use of an artificial or foreign female protagonist, the film recalls last year’s Under the Skin and could be seen as a continuation of that same story.

Domnhall Gleeson stars as a young prodigy seemingly randomly picked to spend a week at the secluded lab of Nathan (Oscar Isaac) who is a senior ranking member of his unnamed software and computer development company. The film drops us right in to the arrival and meeting of the minds, and wastes little time on unnecessary exposition. What follows stays in the realm of eerie plausibility as Gleeson meets Isaac’s latest artificial intelligence creation, the mysterious and inquisitive Ava, played by Alicia Vikander. Ava presents as female, leading to an eventual attraction between the two characters.

Although Isaac’s role could easily descend into a Dr. Frankenstein – ish extreme, his subtle portrayal, with several modern touches, ensures that the audience continues to think of him as an equal and not maniacal player in the equation between the central trio. Sonoya Mizuno also joins the fray in a minimalistic supporting turn, with one great out of left field moment.

The film eventually forces itself into a dramatic denouement along the lines of what one might suspect as the story goes on. But it never loses its initial air of intrigue and thoughtful (and somewhat plausible) integrity.

My Rating: ***1/2

The second film, I Am Michael, has attracted modest attention in the US press, from what I have seen, and seems to be awaiting an official release date as it slowly makes the festival rounds. It features a trio of well – known actors in the leading roles, with James Franco tackling the central role – and real person – Michael Glatze, a former gay activist who dramatically renounced his homosexuality and instead turned to a life as a Christian pastor in Wyoming, complete with bible school education. Zachary Quinto costars as Glatze’s long-term partner, with Emma Roberts appearing late in the film as a woman who becomes Glatze’s heterosexual partner.

I was not familiar with Glatze’s story, which was described in a New York Times article a few years back that served as the basis for this film. At some point I learned that Glatze had spent time at a Buddhist meditation center in Colorado where I have also spent time, and I might have met him, so that curiosity drew me in to see the film.

Franco appears to renounce his recent run of comedic (self-parodying) performances, which likely reached its peak or nadir with the Christmas spectacle The Interview, in this role. Instead of a smirking and self-satisfied attempt to channel a person, I again saw a real acting performance, with close attention paid to conveying Glatze’s internal struggle of how to define himself in the world.

Though Roberts and Qunito’s screen time is limited, both actors maintain the drama of the story arc. I haven’t seen much of Roberts’ work in other films, but did feel that she was particularly successful here in playing a more adult-oriented character, also presumably based on a real person.

The Buddhist connection that made me curious about the film is given limited exploration, and features primarily in a section of the film that feels like it rushes through what happens next in Glatze’s life after he breaks from his gay lifestyle. Veteran actress Daryl Hannah, who seems to have disappeared from films in recent years, appears briefly as the mediation center’s director.

The integrity and commitment of the performers felt somewhat let down by a poorly thought out script, which drew several (presumably) unintentional laughs from the audience in response to multiple instances of cliched dialogue. It seems inevitable that biopics also devolve into a run of greatest hits of the particular person’s lives.

Nonetheless, I hope this film finds an audience when it does reach the USA, if only for a closer look at several hardworking actors and a dramatic look at sexual identity, which remains a topic that is rarely seen in mainstream cinema.

My Rating: ***

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Academy Award Also-Rans

A Most Violent Year finally arrived in wide release yesterday, following its initial Oscar-qualifying release in select cities on December 31st. So I caught the late show at AMC’s John R 15, in a screening room that had been surprisingly renovated into having recliner seats, rather than standard seating.

The film is the third feature written and directed by rising star JC Chandor, whose previous releases, All Is Lost (which I described here) and Margin Call (one of my favorite films of 2011), received wide acclaim. This time Chandor paired with actors Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo and Albert Brooks, along with a wide range of supporting characters, to deliver a complex period piece about a violent time in New York City’s history and one family empire’s role in a competitive business.

While all the performances were uniformly strong, I felt that Isaac didn’t offer particularly new shadings from previous roles. Interestingly, the film may or may not have deliberately made several winks to his role in Drive, where he played a character called Standard, involved with a shady organization led by Albert Brooks. And here he led the Standard Oil Company, which may or may not have come from questionable roots, and Albert Brooks appears as his principle advisor. Meanwhile, Chastain offered a slow burning performance that masterfully builds from demure to aggressive, with a key turning point happening when she and Isaac are out for an evening drive that suddenly turns a bit more violent. However, her character seemed to disappear from the last third of the narrative, perhaps as a reflection of Isaac’s independence from her interference.

The film delights in its ambiguity, although that made for a problematic viewing experience at times, as in trying to figure what was exactly driving the character motivations. The production worked hard to recreate NYC’s look of over 30 years ago, and a recurring theme of snow on the ground is an apt metaphor for the light and darkness of the story.

My Rating: ***1/2


Foxcatcher finally reached the Detroit area sometime just after the new year. I’d had a chance to see this film at Thanksgiving and again at Christmas in the Delaware area, not far from where the real life events took place, but held off until last week back at the Main Art Theatre.

Steve Carrell and Mark Ruffalo have received acclaim and Academy Award nominations for their work in this film, but Channing Tatum has been curiously overlooked and offers an arguably more impressive performance as he turns his easygoing screen persona inside out and works hard to portray a conflicted series of life events for real-life former wrestler Mark Schultz.

It was hard to shake the cold, alienating feel of this film, although it was also certainly well-made and very carefully put together by filmmaker Bennett Miller and his team. It was not hard to understand why the actors have been quoted as saying it was a difficult set to work on and they didn’t want to do much of anything after the day’s shooting.

I’ll close by saying that Miller’s nomination for Best Director seems particularly well-deserved here, and it would be a very different film if he hadn’t guided the story into a unique dark and thoughtful place.

My Rating: ***

European Film Expeditions

This week I have caught up on some recently released and filmed in Europe films, making me stoked to go back to The Continent during spring break next March.

Two FacesFirst up was the new thriller The Two Faces of January, adapted from Patricia Highsmith and from the writer of Drive. Hossein Amini retained his costar in the earlier film, Oscar Isaac, and added Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst into the mix as a central trio caught up in a deceitful web within 1962 Greece. All three actors find several elements to highlight of their roles, with Mortensen nailing the disheveled intrigue of a shady businessman, longtime cinema veteran Dunst offering a mature portrayal of a young woman caught between several worlds, and Isaac continuing to come up the ladder, cinematically, filling in the role of a man who has his hands in several parts of Athens life.

The actors are aided by carefully chosen photography and film work, emphasizing the colorful contrasts of Greece, and a reminder of an era when locations felt more far away (presumably) than they do in the present day, with real effort needed to get a specific plane ticket, to make your next travel connection, or make sure you still have everything you need for your out of the country identification and security.

The film might suffer from what I assume is a flimsy source material. Highsmith’s interest in shady characters, same-gender relationships and European locales is all there, but at a 90 minute running time, there isn’t much depth aside from the inciting event and what happens after that experience. A more seasoned director might have gotten deeper performances from the leads, though Amini’s experience with narrative tension comes in well late in the film with a series of “will they or won’t they succeed in _______ activity” sequences.

The second film of the week, My Old Lady, is a cinematic interpretation of a play originally seen at my “other” hometown theatre, Gloucester Stage Company, in 1996 and 2005. (I remember hearing of both productions but did not see either of them performed.) The film also marks the belated cinema directorial debut of Israel Horovitz, former artistic director of GSC and well – known in the theatre world. Throughout the film, its stage origins are clear, with some positive and some negative results.

my old ladyThe film also seems to be an excuse for its central trio – Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas – to flex their acting muscles in a new project. Scott Thomas has been seen onscreen before with both Kline and Smith, but not in the same film. IMDB says her role was originally scheduled to be played by Jane Birkin, which might have made more sense in the story.

As it is, the start of the film introduces Matthias (Kline), a down on his luck New Yorker who has recently traveled to Paris to inspect an apartment his recently deceased father has left him. He quickly learns that the apartment has been inhabited for many years by Mathilde (Smith), a woman now in her 90’s, and her daughter (Scott Thomas), neither of whom is receptive to his intention to sell the house for income purposes. The focus alternates between the three central characters as Matthias debates whether or not he wants to go through with the sale, while through a series of circumstances, Mathilde reveals that she knows more than she lets on about her family history and how the two younger people are connected to her and each other.

The script’s stage origins are clearly visible throughout the film, with several long monologues still in place and a few scenes clearly added to “open up” the plot and take advantage of the perennially picturesque Parisian locations. Most of the story settles in the central location of the Marais apartment, which seems to be quite large and endless, complete with an attached garden.

Kline seems to be enjoying the demands of the part, showing awkward alcohol – induced stodginess in several scenes, but then following it up with hints of long emotional neglect. Smith also goes beyond her current Downton Abbey stereotype of twinkling eyes and cutting comments, not hesitating to be forceful in several scenes while also showing genuine heart. Scott Thomas falls somewhere in between with a difficult part that seems to be in the middle of the two-character seesaw solely for reaction – based purposes. I can’t say that the film fully convinced me as a drama, but if its taken as an acting class from veterans and perhaps isolated out with just a few of the character monologues and moments, then the best parts come to light.

It was cool to see the full Art Deco experience of the Main Art Theater in action last night.

Main Art